John Riley – Five Poems



How silly of me is not what he thought
as he staggered though not drunk
along the field’s bright-forest line.
Then stupidly perhaps he thought of how
nothing thinks of you and nothing
is strong enough to override thoughts
once turned inward. He did not ask
why he had thought of nothing,
nothing being a thought with no edge
that had brought him pleasure many years.
He was once said to have
a noble head and as his hands
could not reach the arrow in his back
a determination to hold it up
threw his face toward the sky
though all he could see was the top
green of the tree line vanishing
right and left. It was all here.
He did not want to see the arrow’s feathers
and if he turned his head an inch he could
for they bounced above his head
the arrow having come from up high
which mattered to him most of all.


Last night unrolled a space
we lived so happily within.
At nine o’clock a school
of fish swam down the back alley.
I was lucky to see them first,
standing in my wide yard
admiring the thick strong leaves
new on our winter trees.
No one tried to explain the sudden joy
and all the houses emptied.
People smiled and waved and chatted,
no cars drove by,
all the children were safe.
I do not know fish well.
These were quite thin
with recessed eyes located
so far down their shiny bodies
we thought they were smiling
as they turned from the alley
and swam on down the hill
through the darkening night
to spread an even darker mist
across the flowering park.

A Widow On The Beach

She stands in the dark.
Serious boys lay dry wood
onto a beach fire.
Girlfriends stand around the flame.
Their lovely hands flutter light

like doves lifting from
inside a magician’s black hat.
It’s only a night,
just an hour after sundown—
thin embers rise, float away.


The room flooded full of ink,
black ink, the type
once used to write wills
or clandestine notes to deliver
to one in a small group,
perhaps while taking a stroll
through a garden though
it is too foggy to see
all the work the gardener has applied,
white and blue and yellow flowers
and the stones laid
so each tree has a tiny space
to lord over with its limbs.
I slipped through the window,
traded death in the liquid black
for night with dotted stars.
There is nothing left for me
but this space that was raised
to surround me as I walk inside
the vow of silence I swore
as my last foot slipped over
the window ledge. I vowed also
that every turn I shall take
will deliver me to a new place
and from that point forward
I will stay aware of the danger
that comes from owning ink.


The two sisters, long dead,
who had no use for roses
or any flower designed to flatter
did not punch in at the mill that day.
It was easy to bum a ride
through Down East,
over the long swamp bridges
to the coast where acres of open beach
waited for them to run down.
It was even easier to slip
away from the man who drove them.
They laughed cruelly about him cussing
all the way back to the gloom of home
while they were free on this coast,
with no one in sight. When the night came
they took off their shapeless summer dresses,
left on the slips and the underwear
that could be seen through the thin
white cotton in the moonlight,
and ran toward where the waves
break on the shore,
afraid to go out farther, swimming
not something they had learned.
They put back on dry dresses
to lie on the sand until their hunger
made them think of being hungry
in the future without their jobs
so they walked without talking
to the lights down the coast
and used too much of their money
making long distance calls from the payphone
outside the sundry shop.
Their brother finally agreed to come
and decades later he will visit the sister
who was here for a decade after the other was gone
and they will laugh, agree
she must have lost her mind
and was lucky he had been there
to rescue her from such foolishness.


Author’s Statement on Beauty

Tonight I attended a short concert put on by a local college’s jazz ensemble. There was talent on stage and there was also some flailing around and encouraging nods from the band leader. It was spirited and scattered, committed and earnest. It was also beautiful. The hardworking bass player feeling the beats, the lovely clarinetist with the high forehead and fiery passion, the timid flute player asking for encouragement, the two trombonists playing in unison, the drummer who was in charge of the show, all of it added up to a moment of transitory beauty. We are here, they said. In the future, we’ll be gone and there will be other students but we’re glad we’re on the planet at the same time that you are. Music has times and measures but we won’t think about the transience of all that exists for these few minutes. That is what beauty is and I experienced it tonight.


John Riley works in educational publishing. His poetry and fiction have appeared in Metazen, Connotation Press, Smokelong Quarterly, Blue Five Notebook, The Dead Mule, and other journals both online and in print.